Hot off the press: the definitive history of Thurston County

Thurston County: Water, Woods and Prairies, beautifully illustrated, is the result of a major community effort


For residents of Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey, there’s a new book that sheds light on the rich – and at times, tumultuous – history of Thurston County. Titled Thurston County: Water, Woods, and Prairies – Essays on the History of Washington’s Capital County, it’s a collection edited by Sandra A. Crowell and Shirley A. Stirling, capturing stories by a cast of all-star local historians. Consisting of a total of 17 chapters, the 290-page book is filled with information and that might otherwise have faded beyond memory.

 “To really feel like you’re part of a community, it seems to me that you need to identify with that sense of place. And it’s all about the people and the events that have gone before,” Crowell told The JOLT. She says that the authors are a group of highly skilled people. “Every person in that list has published books on local history. We had the best possible expertise.”

The opening chapter, titled "The Original Residents," is written by Crowell herself and describes the tribes living in Thurston county: the Nisqually (“People of the river; people of the grass”), the Squaxin (“People of the Water”), and the Chehalis (“People of the Sands”). The history and lives of the people from these tribes are described with details including their languages, diet, culture, and living conditions. The chapter discusses the original residents’ first contact with Europeans via the Hudson’s Bay Company, which came to trade in furs and then diversified into agriculture, and continues to describe the history of the area through the years. The chapter culminates in a vignette of the legendary local Billy Frank Jr. and his efforts to secure the treaty rights of Natives to fish the rivers in western Washington, which indeed were formally recognized with U.S. v. Washington in 1974, in which judge George Boldt upheld the terms of treaties signed in the 1850s.

The growth of the City of Olympia takes several chapters, which bring forth many fascinating insights into the birth and evolution of Washington’s capital city. (For example, did you know that West Olympia was once called “Marshville” after a man named Edwin Marsh?) The growth of Olympia, its coronation as the state capital, and even challenges to the crown – for example, an attempt in 1860 by lawmakers to confer the title upon the City of Vancouver – are covered through the book.

If case you’re wondering, the book indeed is true to being a history of the entire county, not just the city of Olympia! Other municipalities make appearances, including Lacey, Yelm, Tenino, Yelm, Bucoda, Rainier, Littlerock, Rochester, Maytown, and Summit Lake. Local landmarks such as Boston Harbor and Priest Point Park are featured.

Other aspects of Thurston’s history are explored, including the rich logging and mill industry which once provided jobs and economic growth to many areas, and the railroad industry, which connected Thurston to other surrounding counties and served as a means of transportation of people and goods.

The final chapters discuss the 20th century and the impacts of the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II in Thurston County. Chapter 16,  "A Turbulent Age," discusses the ways in which county residents participated in major war activities in World War I, including enlistments in armed forces (with approximately 20 local men dying in the war) and programs such as the Red Cross and Liberty Loans. The chapter also takes a look at the dark history of Thurston County’s participation in the internment of persons of Japanese descent. After World War II, Thurston County’s demographics became more diverse, becoming a place of refuge for people fleeing political persecution in other countries. 

More than 250 photos, images of original documents, 12 maps and 25 sidebars  illustrate Thurston County’s past. These compelling visuals breathe life into the history of the County. Examples include a scan of the 1851 Petition to the Oregon Territorial Assembly to form Thurston County and contrasting photographs that show Olympia in the 1870s and the construction of the Interstate 5 freeway through Tumwater and Olympia.

The book concludes with a poignant reminder of the value of history, which is “a fragile resource too often subject to neglect and loss.” Jennifer Crooks ends the text with an insight: “Indeed, history can help us to understand our present and perhaps motivate us to work for a better future.”

Crowell notes that the entire project was conducted by unpaid volunteers starting in 2012. “It was a massive community effort,” she says. The efforts of the individuals involved in this project are evident in Thurston County: Water, Woods, and Prairies – Essays on the History of Washington’s Capital County, which stands as a wonderful documentation of the vibrant history of this local area.

Hard-bound ($40) and soft-bound copies ($30) are available through the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum (

Daniel Hu is a freelance writer based in Olympia.


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